Getting more out of your Orcs (Honor & Customs)

 Posted by on May 9, 2012  Filed as: World-Building  Add comments  Topic(s):
May 092012

So how does a society hold together, if everybody is beating up everybody else?  How do races known for thuggery keep any kind of order, do any kind of trade?  This article addresses the way I handle such communities in my own RPG campaigns.  It doesn’t have to be orcs – it could be any fairly brutal population.  But I use this in particular for the orc communities in my Savage Worlds: Sundered Skies campaign.

Orcish Honor & Customs

Orcs don’t claim to have a system of law.  They simply react as duty tells them to.  What is orcish duty?  Basically, it’s anything they’ve been punished for not doing in the past.  The clan chief sets the unspoken rules.  His senior thugs, the bar-shar (see below), enforce those rules.

Not all orcs live up to an honorable code and some don’t even try.  But even the most treacherous orc knows the rules are enforced with everything from punches to execution.  If they don’t believe in honor, they learn to act as if they do.

The Bar-Shar

In orcish communities there isn’t any regular, full-time law enforcement.  Instead, there are bar-shar.  This rank is granted by chiefs to favored warriors who are known for enforcing the chief’s will accurately and effectively.  Bar-shar often have considerable power, acting as sheriff, magistrate, and executioner for their clan.  There is no office or jail or assigned duty post for these thugs:  Their “office” is wherever they happen to be standing, sitting, or carousing.  They are never on duty and always on duty.

It’s a bar-shar’s business to confront and correct anybody who is doing something that, in the bar-shar’s opinion, the clan chief wouldn’t approve of.   For example, one particular chief doesn’t like long arguments or any kind of debate.  So his bar-shar, overhearing an argument between two tables at a bar, demands they fight to resolve their differences, instead of just talking about it.

Because this code can vary from chief to chief, actual standards of conduct can vary in different districts, based on which chief is considered to hold power there.  The rank of Bar-shar is granted to favored warriors who are known for dispensing justice effectively.  These bar-shar can have considerable power locally, becoming sheriff, magistrate, and executioner for their chief.

Common Codes

Most clan territories have some behavior codes in common.  The chiefs are thoroughly versed in tradition, and most follow the ways of past orcish heroes and leaders.  Here’s a couple of examples of “laws” that are likely to be found in any orcish community:

Might makes Right:  Martial strength carries a lot of influence among the orcs.  It is acceptable to use threats of violence against other people, and to enforce those threats as long as you don’t kill or maim them.  It is very common for a merchant’s thugs to stand outside the store, chasing off all other customers until their master (leader, employer) has finished his business.  Likewise, one group of orcs will happily stop a deal in progress and eject the previous customer, if they think they can get away with it.  If you can’t intimidate the orc standing in line ahead of you, stay away until they are gone.

Theft is dishonorable, but demanding to buy something from another party is not.  If you can pay market rate for an item and back up your offer with sufficient threat, you can buy an item right off someone’s person, even against their will.  Just tell them you like that earring, toss some coins at them, and pull it off their ear.  If an orc wants something you have, you can either accept a reasonable offer or get ready to fight them.  If they are with a gang and you are not, better accept their offer.  This includes anything – their home, their slave, their weapon, or whatever.  It must be done face-to-face, wherever the item is.  You can’t take someone’s home behind their back and leave a pile of gold outside the locked door.  That would be cowardly.

A personal insult is the same as a challenge to a fight.  Note that boasting is not an insult.  You can say, “My blade is better than yours,” and that doesn’t justify being attacked.  Orcs frequently go back and forth with boasts as a social contest.  It can be something done in good spirit between friends, with the loser buying the next round of drinks.  On the other hand, if you tell an orc, “You smell pretty, like an elf,” that is definitely a challenge.  A nearby bar-shar might have a problem with you if you fail to defend your own honor.  Orcs are very cagey with insults.  Here’s a variation on the elf insult that invites conflict without demanding it:  “I once saw an elf who had an earring like that.”  This is a light slap.  It isn’t a direct comment at the person with the earring and doesn’t require a defending comment.  It’s a way of asking, “Do you want to fight?  We could take this a step further if you wanted to.”


What if the value of an item that one orc wants to take can’t be determined?  What if a comment is overheard that may or may not be an insult?  That’s when someone runs for the bar-shar, usually a youth or other non-combatant.  There is usually somebody around who wants to see the bar-shar intervene.  The bar-shar will “teach” custom and honor to his clan.

The bar-shar’s word is final.  Nobody will openly disagree with his judgment.  A bar-shar who makes bad judgments will find himself having a “friendly chat” with his clan chief before long.  There are only a few penalties the bar-shar can inflict, but they serve well enough:  Fighting, combat, and death:

  • Fighting:  Non-lethal, one-on-one conflict between the disputing parties.  Anybody present is more or less required to gather around and act as a living arena wall for the people involved.  Missile weapons and magic are not allowed.  Thrown weapons and holy magic from the god(s) worshiped by orcs is okay.
    • The fighting judgment is used for any kind of minor dispute where the truth is unclear.  If there is obvious evidence that one party has already been victimized, a bar-shar can injure the other party before combat begins using a blunt weapon.  Killing your opponent in this kind of fight usually results in a death sentence for you.  The idea is to disable them as much as possible so that, in addition to being proven wrong, they are unable to do anything for hours or days.  For this reason, the fighter with the advantage will often make called shots on his opponent, inflicting maximum damage before the judge (usually the local bar-shar) announces a winner.
    • If there is only one party involved (there is no victim, but someone was found acting dishonorably), the bar-shar himself fights for the theoretical “other side”.
    • If one party cannot be expected to fight, they can take a few minutes to try and find someone to represent them.  If they can’t find someone, or if they refuse to try, they automatically lose the dispute.
  • Combat:  This is similar to Fighting but allows the use of weapons.  The bout can be immediate or as late as the next morning – no later than that.  This punishment is used to resolve serious disputes, such as accusations of murder, dishonor, or grand theft.
    • Killing one’s opponent is acceptable, but sometimes an orc gains honor or additional concessions by sparing the opponent.  It is acceptable to hold the defeated opponent at sword point asking for an apology and one of his donkeys, in exchange for his life.  Any such deal must be announced openly.  If the loser accepts, his life is protected.  The judge of the fight can also declare a winner and an end, if neither side seems fit to make a determination (for example, if they are both too weakened or too drunk to speak).  In this case, the declared winner has the right to execute the loser or to have the bar-shar perform the execution.
    • As with fighting, the bar-shar is sometimes obliged to become the opponent.  An unjustified murder is a good example of this.
  • Death:  This is reserved for cases where the accused has fled a previous legal combat, has been declared a disgrace, is a known cheater, argues too much with the bar-shar, or otherwise is not suitable for combat.  A peaceful priest or very feeble person would also fall into this category.  In this case, the bar-shar or his subordinate will simply drive a dagger through the chest or neck of the accused.  If the accused is somehow able to escape or avoid death, they become a fugitive and anyone can kill them for a reward.

About doubles:  Doubles (champions, a second, a bodyguard, or whatever) can freely be used in judicial combats.  The exception is that bar-shard and chiefs may challenge an accused individual directly.  In that case, the accused must fight for themselves personally.  However, the chief or bar-shar must be careful to avoid the appearance of cowardice here.  If the accused has a very strong bodyguard, the best action is to fight the bodyguard.  The purpose of the direct challenge privilege is to resolve situations that can’t, for some reason, be resolved by the normal rules.  An example would be a wrongdoer who keeps returning with different hired seconds and committing more offenses.

In most cases, a bar-shar will accept a fight with a double.  Of course, they will do their best to kill the double, so as to send a message to the master.  Honor is at serious risk if a chief or bar-shar makes a direct challenge to someone obviously weaker.  Sometimes a bar-shar will insist that a double be found, maybe even calling on a subordinate orc to take up the cause, in order to avoid having to slay an inferior opponent.

Clan Rivalry

Insulting someone else’s chief is a very dangerous act, and you are likely to be severely punished by your own chief for doing so, even if the insulted chief is an enemy.  This is because such behavior can cause open vendetta between clans.

Rather than risk chaos, the preferred method of ruffling feathers is simply to claim that your clan is better than theirs.  This works like boasting, mentioned above, except the target is an entire clan, not an individual.  As long as you keep your language in the positive (“My clan is stronger and bigger”) and away from the negative (“Your clan is weak like goblins”), you are safe.  Safe from your own chief, that is.  Sometimes influence over a street or shop will be in dispute, or there is simply very bad feeling between two clans.  In this case, such rivalry is likely to occur until one side withdraws.  Deaths must be kept to a minimum, to avoid drawing the attention of other chiefs or even an overlord.  A chief is free to expand his holdings in any honorable way, so long as it does not threaten overall stability.

If you are in trouble in one part of an orcish city, head down the street to another part.  Look for imposing warriors with different markings from the ones you insulted.  They might protect you by challenging any other clan who comes near.  Oh, but don’t let them think you are using them that way, or they might escort you straight back to your enemies.

Jeff B.

  2 Responses to “Getting more out of your Orcs (Honor & Customs)”

  1. I have to say, I’ve never thought about putting this many nuances into orcs before. You’ve given me something to think about.

  2. I love putting detail on the standard enemies, like orcs. Thanks for the useful tips, I’ll use them in an upcoming campaign.

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